Issue: Spring/Summer 2013
The House That Love Built
Hannah Hanover '13
Paul and Mildred (“Miggy”) Krentel ’42 met early in their Houghton careers. In 1940 Paul was sophomore class president and Miggy an incoming freshman. Both left Houghton soon after meeting – and without graduating – to embrace a shared dream of raising a large family. Young, dedicated, and energetic, Paul and Miggy Krentel could not know how their dreams of family and faith would falter in tragedy, change during unanticipated challenges, and eventually flourish through perseverance.
Miggy had given birth to five healthy children when she and Paul began envisioning their future as aging parents, encompassed by their thriving adult sons and daughters. Then Martha, their fifth child, died. The Krentels faltered. The unexpected death of their baby girl devastated the middleaged couple and the rest of the children. After years of fulfilling youthful dreams conceived at Houghton, the trajectory of the Krentels’ life grew uncertain and somber. But their uncertainties only began with Martha’s death. In 1963 a sixth child was born. It soon became evident that Melissa had Down’s Syndrome and would never be capable of living independently. Paul and Miggy began searching for a home-like setting where Melissa could thrive, a place that would provide basic live-in care, comfort and happiness for those with special needs. Not satisfied with recommended institutional settings, the Krentels’ vision expanded to help not only their own daughter fulfill her potential, but others with developmental challenges as well. The Krentels wanted their daughter to have friends and to live somewhere that felt, looked, and smelled like home.
In 1966, after vigorous prayer and fundraising, the couple sold their home and purchased a 35-room mansion in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, assuming a $70,000 mortgage. This was the beginning of Melmark, an institution named for Melissa, Martha, and the Krentel family name; it was christened by Paul and Miggy as “the house that love built” and is called “the happiest place on earth” by the current president and CEO, Dr. Joanne Gillis-Donovan.
Over the next 24 years Melmark received monetary support from friends, families, and institutions throughout the country. Melmark’s population grew and the campus flourished into a bustling center of activity and encouragement for its residents. Paul abandoned a career in the private sector to oversee Melmark’s future early in its history, while Miggy and the older Krentel children – Dave, Bob, Steve, and Diane – worked together to craft an environment in which any family could house a loved one without worry or regret.
Miggy helped develop programs for Melmark’s special-needs population that taught marketable skills and crafts and that engaged residents in the arts. Melmark challenged residents to achieve higher levels of independence than ever expected. Originally, this meant swimming in Melmark’s pool, riding horses, and enjoying Melmark’s acres of land. Now, nearly forty years later, a resident’s day might include learning office and building skills, creating dried flower arrangements for future sale, working with textiles, playing sports, acting with the Melmark Players, performing in the Joybells hand-bell choir, or attending parties. An intimate ratio of trained rehabilitative staff to residents provides the level of attention and care necessary to maintain Melmark’s standards of excellence and personal attention.
Paul was a perfectionist, a sharp businessman, and a caring father. Miggy was as spunky as her nickname implies – she rarely took “no” for an answer and refused to be content with situations others may have found inevitable. Her discontent with a system of storing rather than empowering functionally disadvantaged youth and adults led her to revolutionize the systems and standards of care for those with Down’s Syndrome, autism, and other disabilities, casting a vision for their future that continues to broaden and succeed over the 20 years since her retirement in the 1990s.
Melissa remains at Melmark where Paul’s and Miggy’s dreams of care, love, cleanliness, and activity have expanded for the inclusion of youth and adults across the autism spectrum,in addition to those suffering brain damage, a wide range of mental disabilities, and genetic disorders.
Today Melmark is overseen by Dr. Joanne Gillis-Donovan who, since early 1996, has worked to expand Melmark’s programs. Melmark serves a highly diverse population, recently opened a campus called Melmark: New England, and has a population of 1,000 residents and nearly 1,000 employees. Melmark’s services strive to deepen, enrich, and solidify the Krentels’ values and vision with high-quality clinical programs
Paul Krentel passed away in 1996, followed by his loving widow and co-founder, Miggy, seventeen years later in January, 2013. Paul and Miggy envisioned a community that could help individuals fulfill the potential the outside world never thought they possessed. With a stubborn faith and a love for God – and one another – the Krentel family created a new niche in the world where those thought of as disabled, incapable, burdensome, or unstable could gain greater independence and become capable, productive, and cheerful. Paul and Miggy saw a different world for the functionally disadvantaged and dedicated themselves to helping others see that world too.